Whoever Speaks the Truth Must Die

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GIORDANO BRUNO (1973) is by Giuliano Montaldo, whose CLOSED CIRCUIT I enjoyed, and wrote about for Sight & Sound (possibly the only article in that organ’s history to be written in the form of a police interrogation). I then ran GRAND SLAM, his 1967 Rio heist flick, which totally lacked the elaborate, hypnotic choreography of cast and camera which entranced me in the TV movie (about a spaghetti western that kills audience members!). Most of the filmmakers effort seemed to have gone on unconvincing special effects to convince us that ailing star Edward G. Robinson was on location.

But GB sees the return of the elaborate camera blocking, and a fantastic set of collaborators in DoP Vittorio Storaro, composer Ennio Morricone, and star Gian Maria Volonte as the lapsed priest persecuted by the Inquisition for preaching “heresy” (such as stating that the earth orbits the sun and that there are other worlds which may be inhabited.

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I get the strong impression that Montaldo and Storaro had seen THE DEVILS and been impressed, though their approach is less hysterical than Ken Russell’s, leaving out the camp and staying pretty sombre even during the hero’s debauches. Just as with Ollie Reed, though, Volonte undergoes a sharp transition from unsympathetic hedonist to Christ-like martyr at the hands of politicians and the church. Storaro even borrows lighting cameraman David Watkin’s trick of using out of focus and over exposed backgrounds where the light actually eats into characters’ profiles, an eye-catching effect indeed, turning people into frayed cut-outs.

All through the story, Volonte in his cell is associated with light (Storaro does love his symbolic effects), blasting in from narrow windows and given a sculptural shape by subtle application of smoke, whereas his papal persecutors inhabit realms of wealth and opulence and formal symmetry. Venice street scenes get a handheld, loose treatment to contract with the elegance of the wealthy.

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Morricone seems capable of far more nuanced work when the film is in Italian, and his score here is, of course, beautiful, but also cunning. Divine music accompanies the pontiff’s crisis on conscience as he ponders whether the man he’s having stretched on the rack may have more in common with the apostles than with common criminals. He seems a sincere, thoughtful and worried man, anxious to hold onto the reins of power but with the intention of using them to do good. But the church is, in fact, a power structure, and self-preservation is its only priority, and this essentially weak man must either ride this juggernaut the way it wants to go or be crushed by it. And so the apparently decent, cautious pope becomes quite easily the film’s biggest villain, and Morricone’s sacred accompaniment is revealed as an elaborate bluff and a black joke.

Volonte is a fascinating choice here as he’s rarely a very sympathetic actor, often cast as heavies by Leone, Petri, Lizzani, and the late Francesco Rosi. His vaguely disagreeable features and unsentimental scripting help stop Bruno becoming a plaster saint, so that by the end, when all vanity has fallen away and he has, in best Howard Beale fashion, “run out of bullshit,” he can attain a kind of secular sainthood by standing up to a vast power which can destroy him without the slightest trouble. An affecting portrait of intellectual heroism, particularly pertinent in the light of recent events (ALL this week’s posts seem pertinent in the light of recent events).

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Oh, and we also get a little role for my favourite floundering detective, Renato Scarpa, the sickly chubster from DON’T LOOK NOW… And a couple of sequences of Charlotte Rampling, including one weird one where she becomes sexually aroused by GB’s philosophy. Is there a perversion, known or unknown to human practice, that Rampling hasn’t yet ably embodied? I’m not sure this one even has a name.

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